Meet the Instructor: My Life in Code

Hannah Smith is one of our newest instructors at Develop Me. She is an agile technical project manager, WordPress developer and leads Bristol WordPress People. Hannah teaches the WordPress unit of the Develop Me Coding Fellowship, when she’s not snowboarding…

Here’s her story of a life in code.

I’ve been programming since about the age of 15, circa 1998. When I look back I find it hard to recall exactly what attracted me in the first place. It definitely wasn’t one thing that lured me in, but a combination of things. I won’t bore you to death with an analysis of those things but there are definitely two major influences:

Dial-up internet arrived a year or so before. My parents ran a business from home and realised that they were missing out by not having emails so we got connected. At the time I was really into tropical fish — I loved the way they swam around in shoals being all sparkly and pretty. I wanted a way to share that passion with others, and knew that building a website would be a great way to do that. As a teenager with £3 a week pocket money I knew this meant learning to build it myself.

I would wait until my parents had finished working in the office for the evening and would sneak in to code my site with the lights off, hoping the dial-up noises didn’t alert them to the fact that I was yet again running up the bills. I found myself getting a kick from mastering HTML and being able to present my information as I wanted.

Making websites and digital art opened up an entirely new way of being creative to me.

To my amazement, all that work paid off and people actually visited my site and chatted in my forums. I still put that down to my awesome animated gifs!

Another huge influence was The Matrix, which came out in 1999 and totally blew my mind. I saw that the world of computers had almost limitless potential if you could just imagine what to do with them and knew how to use them. Neo and Trinity were so blistering cool.

Suddenly being a geek meant you could actually save the world.

Roll on a few years and at age 18 I went to university to study Computer Science. You might expect me to say I’ve never looked back and I skipped off into coding nirvana….

It didn’t quite go like that.

I loved my degree but I didn’t finish it. I signed up for a 4 year MEng but dropped out a little way into the fourth year. The tutoring and 1:1 help wasn’t great and when I got stuck I didn’t really feel that I had anyone to turn to. It was a case of re-reading the same instructions in my notes or text-book and trial and error until finally something ran. Stack Exchange wasn’t on the scene back then — oh how I love it these days!

My experiences of being left to get on with it during my uni years is one of the reasons I enjoy teaching so much these days. Being able to help and support others as they start their coding journey and retrain their brains to think in the right way is a real privilege.

I always felt very different from most of my class mates. Out of one hundred, five of us were girls, and one of the girls only lasted a term. Most of the fellas seemed scared to talk to me because… well I never really got it, but I suppose it was because I had boobs and the fact I had other interests outside of coding. The whole gender diversity thing is a topic for another blog… but I am immensely chuffed to see how things are changing and how much support there is for women in tech now. Nice one ladies! Anyway, I digress…

I was so saddened by my decision to quit.

I have never quit at anything in my life. Part of me felt like I’d failed, but part of me knew that it was ultimately the right thing to do. Thankfully that feeling of failure didn’t last long as I walked away with a BSc and three weeks after quitting I got my first techy job. I worked at a small digital agency who made websites, games, animations, films and software. Yes all those things. It was mental but I loved it! I worked hard and learned a lot about coding in the real world. It ended up being a brilliant move. I felt like I had finally arrived.

You might be expecting me to say that I’ve been working in tech or coding ever since, but no.

My passion had always been for the environment so after three years I went off to the Environment Agency to do good. I took an eight year detour away from coding and focused all my career energy on getting good at management: people management, programme management, portfolio management, systems management and strategic business change. Decision making, basically.

You might think that knowing how to code had nothing to do with that career sidestep into management, but far from it.

Learning to code trained me to problem solve, think critically and make decisions and those skills were invaluable in my management career.

After the Environment Agency, I felt burnt out by trying to save the planet, especially when we got hit by the government’s austerity programme, so I went travelling for a year with my other half. We went to New Zealand, bought a van and lived like hobos for a while. We did a heck of a lot of surfing, biking and snowboarding out there. It was cool! It gave me space and time to think about what to do next and what my life priorities needed to be.

I spent a lot of time thinking about how I could get my work life balance to a better place.

I noticed a curious thing start to happen. If it came up in conversation with people we met that I knew a bit of coding and how websites worked, invariably the next part of the conversation would go, “I’ve got a website, can you help me?”. Literally every time. I got offered so much paid work it was crazy, even though my skills were pretty rusty. It even paid for a ten day stay in the Maldives on the way home.

On our return home, I realised just how much I loved coding and that I’d missed it a lot. It was such a refreshing contrast to working in management and business change, where it could take two years or more to see the fruits of your labour. Coding is very instant and those receiving your finished work get the benefits of what you have done almost straight away. I decided to set myself up as a freelance web developer. I used to know a lot and be good at it, how hard could it be?

Answer: much harder than I thought.

I just hadn’t appreciated how much web development had moved on in eight years. We now had CSS3, and responsive web design was a thing. Javascript was everywhere and there was so much new tooling available it made my eyes water.

The learning curve was immense and whilst I still knew how coding worked and how to think in the right way, my knowledge was seriously archaic. I do love learning, and that’s part of why working in this industry thrills me so much. Every day is a school day. Nonetheless, I got sick of never having heard of all these different tools and feeling like I knew nothing. What the hell was Gulp, Grunt and WebPack? Didn’t they all do the same thing? Why were there so many solutions that solved the same problems? Or did they do the same thing? Argh!

If I was to make that switch again, I would definitely book onto an intensive bootcamp or training course like the Coding Fellowship that DevelopMe offer. Having more guidance from trusted developers to find my way through the possibilities would have accelerated my transition a whole lot. Instead I felt like I was back at uni — billy no mates who learned through getting it wrong a thousand times before figuring it out.

The good news is after about a year, I found myself evening out a bit. I was starting to actually know what these different tools were and how to use them effectively. I also became involved in several tech meet-ups in Bristol which helped enormously. The big moment came for me when rather than saying yes to a project and figuring out how to do it later, I would actually have done it or something like it before. Such a weight lifted off my shoulders. I felt I could look people in the eye and say “I am a web developer, not a fraud”.

The best bit about coming back to coding? The freedom.

The remote working opportunities are amazing. Right now I’m away in the Italian Dolomites for three months soaking up some of that work life balance I mentioned a while back. Every morning I have breakfast and then head out into the mountains to snowboard, toboggan or just hike. Then I settle down in the afternoon and write some code. Magic really.

I’m sure my journey won’t end here. But one thing that is constant in my story is just how good a decision learning to code has been for me. Whether or not I’ve had jobs as a programmer, the training I got to think critically, break problems down into bite-sized chunks and view feedback as a gift have been skills that have been the backbone of my career to date.